rob mclennan: aubade
by Michael Peverett
aubade, a sequence of twelve sequences, themselves mostly comprising what are putatively shorter poems, contains some beautiful pages. The page rather than the poem is how I see this; which perhaps is surprising - you might not consider the visual aspect of rob mclennan's poems as especially noteworthy on the face of it - but that's how it is. What I would really like to "quote" for you here is a complete double-page, for my impression is that the facing pages do a lot of work in partnership, but I haven't found out how I can do this on a blog, so you'll have to be content with a single page - a long quote nevertheless, but this is more telling than lots of little ones that would miss the most important thing. This page comes from somewhere in the middle of poem for a sad november, which unlike most of the sequences is not further broken up into poemlets each with its own title, but is all the clearer in its effect (the last word on the preceding page, I ought to explain, is "requiem"):
for sour grapes / to justify
five spaces left
corona down the macrolevel of a
novel spent overwritten on the trees / crack
ice or air she culls it, glass, en français,
glace / not wrong but one language overlay
beautiful & binary, irregular & dangerous
this lyrical twoness--breaks apart
distinction of the heart & beauty myth,
binary / yang/ying that completes the
hidden circle / i miss you
like alberta moisture, dry snow
so wet & cold & damp
sung deep in the bones
presents a reasoning for this cold november
more than seasonal heat & lack thereof
prevents a making of
stone cold soup / hydraulic sage
& microwave blaze / old
radiation-king / & roommate
argues with her boyfriend, screams
thru the wall a desire that has not been spent
What we notice first, most simply and not least importantly, is a lyrical energy driven by the preoccupations (impossible to disguise) of a male poet under thirty-five - mclennan was born in 1970 but most of aubade was written in 2000-2001.
This lyric pulse is the way in to the poem, or inverting the metaphor perhaps it's the engine-room, but anyway it isn't the poem. And as is patent the "lyric" is also a topic within the poem - mclennan is a very literary poet - I mean, a poet who inhabits a literary world and writes through that.
The word "spent" appears twice here; a word whose meanings waver around financial, sexual, seasonal, extinguished; the sun comes in and out of this sap-sunk time of year: "corona", "seasonal heat", "radiation-king".
But here's what I mean by taking pages as units: there's a way of looking down into the poem and seeing other things. So in the section beginning "corona" you can take in at one glance, just as clearly as you can hear it, the sound-sequence that goes corona ... macrolevel ... novel ... overwritten ... overlaid. Going along beside this are the icicle evocations of culls and glass. Most visual of all, the solidi ( / ) and the ampersands ( & ) make, respectively, disjunctive splits and conjunctive knots.
(And yet, in talking this way about the page I'm also aware of a feeling that this is just a snapshot; I've stopped the poem in its tracks. Though it's taken me personally a lot of attempts before I've grown accustomed to the movement, it's eventually possible to read poem for a sad november straight through and to experience the poem's transformations as a thrilling adventure, its final pages for example obviously a bit slower in tempo and with different melodies, yet feeling like some substance deposited out in the course of the poem's chemical reaction, and not very like a coda.)
It's clear from his very name that rob mclennan takes the minutiae of orthography, layout and punctuation quite seriously ("to justify / five spaces left"). At first glance you might suppose that aubade evinces a consistent group of presentational choices, and to a certain extent it does: no capital letters, no apostrophes, and abbreviated particles such as thru, w/, abt, yr, &, tho. Part of the point, no doubt, is to create the right kind of casual, liberated landscape in which the poetry can develop; besides, – mclennan's work being constantly in dialogue with literary community – past participles like wrappt, calld, etc instantiate the Robert Duncan spelling-choices so widely used as identification-markers by poets in non-SoQ traditions; thot (for "thought") is also a Duncan spelling, though perhaps the more relevant invocation in this case is bpNichol.
But what I find interesting and inventive in aubade are the subtle ways in which orthography, punctuation, and syntax interact with more narrowly poetic formal choices to make varieties in this overall landscape. poem for a sad november, for instance, has a distinctively different feel from some of the other sequences. If it flourishes its deviant use of the solidus (creating an impression that the lines of verse are making hay with lines of verse from some other text), it makes only minor use of the aforementioned abbreviations - the phrases are long (if often incomplete), not here suggestive of slangy notes but of discursive amplitude. In its ten pages there is only one non-standard past participle: turnd - it emerges that turn is an important verb in this poem, so we then find turns, turn, and (decisively) turned.
Or consider the use of full stops. In some of the sequences, like the opening aubade, there are none. In poem for a sad november there are also none, except for a sudden eruption of three in successive lines:
the only significant pause. oh, there
little aesthetic shocks. gets between
the blanket & her warm thighs.
Then, in a later episode, they make a sort of transformed return with spaces to either side, falsely implying metrical marks:
inevitable . a sequence
of diminishing numbers . & days
the roof falls in on . dogs
bark at trees . squirrels
The adventures of the full stop, like the adventures of the word turn, are secret narratives interlaced into the larger action of the poem.
Try another one. This is the first poem of exile:
south keys (he who became lost
this is a poem w/ neither light. time of day
by the teeth of the river, they slept. the tip,
expands across the water. lets lost balls
float slowly past.
the taste of anything this morning. the snow here,
does as snow does.
a candle burns brightest. the box it came in,
a telephone is not a detection system. beats
the myths of early warning.
tristan took the wrong south bus, & never saw
isolde again. wandered crescents
for hours. who then
the loss becomes him. that is,
Most of these sentences are incomplete. (Despite this, the lyric is very nearly in focus, as many of the lyrics in aubade are.) This poem exploits one feature of dispensing with capital letters; there's no formal distinction between what seem to be the beginnings of sentences ("this is a poem w/ neither light", "a candle burns brightest") and what seem to be the ends of sentences ("the taste of anything this morning", "lets lost balls float slowly past") - not to mention the middle part ("who then became"). The poem and its firmly-positioned full stops maintain an unstable poise between the derangement of loss (time of day evaporates) and the apparent sprightliness of its solid things (a river, a candle, this morning).
For a final variation in this survey of the full stop take a look at this poem, which comes from a translation: stones & ice, a sequence where everything, even the titles of the poems, is conspicuously over-punctuated.
adverse to shifts in other states.
appears like smoke but isnt, merely
had the vapours. reverts, from stories
told thru motel phones. a long distance
prairie. the miracle of technology, &
close reminder, of what is no longer
there. the front desk emits, & says,
ask me nicely. reroute this. ask.
The typical line is hindered by one, two or three stops. Only a couple of lines in the whole sequence are allowed to take in more air and those lines are important for the sudden long breeze and long view. You realize then how the rest of the sequence is stifled, jumbled together, still in its boxes. Block ice and soil packed with boulders.
Reading across, the poems keep striking out the same things: stones, ice, translation, words, skin, sex, motel phones, rooms you stay in for one night only. I imagine an ingenious reader could find each of those things in each of the poems - try it with the one above if you like. "Emits" and "contains" are the two important and not quite oppositional verbs.
I tried a similar approach to voice-over 3: bloodletting when I finally happened to make a connection between a handful of references to blood or (as I persuaded myself) to implicit blood. But it's no use pretending this gives a very secure foothold in the sequence, which plays off its title-quotes in pursuit of sheer width of reference. That way the slender texts remain upright and become interesting more as a kind of architecture, shaped spaces to negotiate, than for what they "contain". The poetic experience lies as it were between the poems, so this is bringing me back to what I said earlier about pages. Here is one of the 11 poems, just to give you an idea, but I think the best way of reading is to flick between them all as rapidly as possible:
'Paradox is to poetics as coffin is to corpse: how'
harkens the world, goes out to
ambient noise across the amphitheatre--
i hear the sound of,
there is an opening. i stuff it
full of leaves.
letter drop, or songs from a room is perhaps an even more baffling sequence. But it does give me an opportunity to highlight another in mclennan's arsenal of techniques, the curious recurrence of phrases that cuts across the structural division of aubade into sequences. Examples:
sing a song of sixpence (from "old standards, 2" (aubade)).
sings a song of (from "and comforted", (letter drop, or songs from a room)).
just call me angel, trilogy (from "undercurrents" (underwater)).
just call me angel, trilogy ("'How you transform the wet / late-winter snow' - Jan Zwicky" (from voice-over 3: bloodletting)).
the / minds deluge (from "hair" (aubade)).
the minds deluge (from "poem for my mother" (winterlong)).
letter drop, or songs from a room (sequence title)
letter drop (from "hair" (aubade)).
film & letter drop / break (from section 4 of poem for a sad november).
What do these recurrences mean? Contrasting with the immediacy of the lyric pulse, the implication is construction from pre-existent materials. Consider too the nature of the recurrent phrases listed above: they are more than a little enigmatic. What is the significance of "just call me angel, trilogy"? - a Google search picks up "just call me angel" in the chorus of that much-covered Chip Taylor standard "Angel of the Morning", but it doesn't record any instances of this phrase being linked with "trilogy". The phrase "letter drop" could refer to a rather dull word-game, or to the "dead letter drop" beloved of spies and revolutionaries, or to an Oulipian poetic form, as in the 1999 collection Letter Drop by the Toronto poet Victor Coleman, which mclennan surely knows of. The "angel, trilogy" phrase crops up in snowy contexts - but aubade is very interested in snow and ice, so this might not be all that significant. As for the Chip Taylor song (and the song of sixpence), well, "old standards" is the title of two poems in the opening aubade, a sequence much concerned with music.
It may be that a reader from Ottawa could take some of these lines of enquiry a lot further than I can. All I want to point out is that the first impression of the poems - conceived as lyrics - as, for all their personal lyric pulse, oddly inconsequent, or perhaps I might say (without pejorative implication) blurred, is partly due to an intense hum of other things going on within the text. Whether mclennan throws things together or not (and the more I read, the more I doubt this), the result is a very complicated pattern.
Much of what I've just said about these more overtly difficult sequences applies also to the final sequence, death & trauma: a deliberate play of births and endings.
The end-note informs us that it's "a very loose translation of fragments from an essay by Robert Kroetsch, 'For Play and Entrance: The Contemporary Canadian Long Poem' ..., while over-writing the story of the Frank Slide, Alberta (near Crowsnest Pass) disaster of 1903". Readers hoping for an epic historical narrative along the lines of Zane Grey's Thunder Mountain will have to look elsewhere; in mclennan's poem detailed evocation of that brief and monstrous event (Note 1) is left to the reader. The historical event is mixed into a relentlessly intertextual play of ideas about "delay" and "deferral" (presumably, Kroetsch's terms); but for all that, there is something unexpectedly moving in this contemplation of the unintelligible/untellable catastrophe of 100 seconds. With what justification I don't know, I connect this sequence with the death of one of aubade's three dedicatees, Anya Brebner (Note 2). How reality, in the form of Turtle Mountain, lies aside from the text as a challenge to its poetics - a challenge, nevertheless, to be met only by poetics - can be sampled from this tense over- or under-writing of a poem we all know:
the essential difference between
of wallace stevens,
the poem of the mind in the act of dealing
what will entice. it was never so hard
to mind. the lean was set; it retorted what
was already built.
then the features changed
to claiming else. its currency was unclear.
1. "In the early morning hours of April 29, 1903, Turtle Mountain collapsed, resulting in the greatest landslide in North American history. In 100 seconds: at least 76 people were buried alive under tons of massive limestone boulders; three-quarters of the homes in Frank were crushed like balsa wood; over a mile of the Canadian Pacific Railroad was completely destroyed; and a river became a lake." (Quoted from http://www3.sympatico.ca/goweezer/canada/frank.htm)
2. aubade is dedicated to Diana Brebner, Anya Brebner, and John Newlove. The Ottawa poet Diana Brebner died of cancer on April 29, 2001. A few weeks later (June 16) her 16-year-old daughter Anya was killed by a bolt of lightning. The Saskatchewan poet John Newlove died in Ottawa on December 23, 2003.
aubade was published by Broken Jaw Press in 2006 (ISBN: 978-1-55391-039-8).
You can also print out a free on-line sampler.